When Justice Flees and Dystopia Takes Over: Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’

Measure for Measure

One of the delights (or disappointments) in watching a Shakespeare play is seeing how far the production will stretch the limits of the original version. With just the text and a sampling of stage directions, the production faces a wealth of decisions: stay classic and keep it naked of ornamentation, or invest in the set, music and costumes to help enhance the production? Keep it in the original time period or add a modern twist? Push for drama or for comedy? Faced with so many choices, it’s easy to have a confused presentation. Although questionable decisions do occur in the Yale Dramat’s Fall Ex, the incredibly strong cast of “Measure for Measure” manages to create a truly enjoyable theatrical experience.

At the core of “Measure for Measure” is a morality and system of justice abused and disrespected by the very political figures charged with maintaining it. The play begins with the Duke of Vienna, handing over his job to a deputy, Angelo. Angelo turns out to be a power-hungry, cold-heartened totalitarian who wants to restore order to the corrupt, brothel-infested underworld Vienna has become. His first act is to imprison Claudio who has impregnated Juliet without officially marrying her. His sister, Isabella, petitions Angelo for Claudio’s release. In doing so, Angelo begins to lust after her and demands her maidenhood in return for her brother. Meanwhile, the Duke disguises himself as a friar and flutters from character to character, demanding they confess to him, and attempting to resolve their predicaments. These elements fuel the plot of a tale that presents the repercussions of power when it is divorced from morality.

The characters who either challenge or defend this morality are the stars of the production, seducing the audience with their meticulous attention to detail in both gestures and speech. Iason Togias ’16 plays the Duke and friar with a brilliant authority, delivering his lines with a stern and patronizing tone that conveys his feeling of moral superiority. Mitchel Kawash ’13, who plays Angelo, personifies evil and self-righteousness, but also allows his sense of frailty to glimmer through when impressed and condemned by Isabella. Isabella, played by Lucy Fleming ’16, embodies the chaste virgin who can fight words with the strength of goddess Diana, and Fleming does a brilliant job transforming her from a pitiful girl pleading for help to an upright, powerful woman lauding the quality of mercy with so much conviction that even Portia would be impressed. Others of note include Kyle Yoder ’15, who plays both Claudio and constable Elbow, the second of which generates a majority of the play’s laughs, and Lucio, a meddling trickster played by Clio Contogenis, ’14, who provides the comedy central to the Shakespearean experience with her highly entertaining and exaggerated gestures.

Although the play would be a success even if they were simply situated on an empty stage, the set, costumes and sound helps convey the intense political change Angelo is enacting that is easy to miss while sorting out Shakespeare’s clever prose. To create a city in turmoil, the set features a Cubist cityscape on a disjointed frame, complete with gears and a Big-Brother-like poster that claims “Angelo is Justice.” The powerful characters dress in cold, formal attire, and the more seedy ones wear dirtied garments. Lucio wears a pink suit, splattered with ink on the back, a fedora and combat boots. Isabella wears a tank top and chain mail skirt with heels, which shows a lot of skin for a would-be nun, but helps reinforce the idea that she is an object of lust. The set and costumes add a much-needed foreboding tone to the production, but the sound chosen to complement this image unfortunately muffles the actors’ lines. In the last Act, the Duke reveals he was the friar in front of the assembly of characters, but it is hard to enjoy the performance because voices attempting to convey that there is a greater crowd beyond take over in the background.

Despite the sound, the last Act cements the show’s refreshing willingness to take risks that can be pulled off. In the last few moments of the play, after condemning Angelo, freeing Claudio, and creating what he assumes to be a happy ending, the Duke seals the deal with an awkward finish: he proposes to Isabella. Isabella, who has spent the last two-and-a-half hours defending her virtue and swearing off marriage for God, doesn’t get a response before the play awkwardly ends. This moment is part of what defines “Measure for Measure” as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, for the director is left to decide what to do with this pause. Alexi Sargeant ’15, using the handy trick of modern technology, pulls it off by juxtaposing a film in the background of Isabella dancing with the Duke while on stage everyone stands frozen, the Duke with hand outstretched, and Isabella, the only one animate, left to turn slowly to the audience with a face full of terror. This last moment defines the play as a whole: Once virtue is abused and justice no longer can rectify wrongs, we are left with a subverted ending where only questions remain, and our only option is to create our own answers.

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